W. Kamau Bell‘s solo comedy show,Â The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in about an Hour*, now in its third or so run at The Shelton Theatre in San Francisco is pioneering work.Â Bell, a standup comedian who got his start in Chicago, the improv capital of the States, developed his conversational, yet sharp, poignant style atÂ Cobb’s Comedy ClubÂ andÂ The Punch Line.Â But rather than tell you a bit about the show, which you can see in SF, Oakland, or Berkeley, I’m going to tell you a bit about Kamau, who you might also see in SF, Oakland, or Berkeley.
I met Kamau in 1998 around the time that he moved to San Francisco.Â There used to be something like an “internship” at Cobb’s, back when Cobb’s was located in The Cannery in the Fisherman’s Wharf district.Â Every six months or so, an up and coming comic was chosen to host one of the three weekday showcases as well as host the weekend show once a month, which added up to a lot of stage time one of the two best clubs in the city.Â Kamau had gotten the prized “internship” just as Cobb’s was getting ready to move to Columbus and Lombard.
On of my favorite bits of his back then was about the omnipresence of African Americans in popular culture.Â It went like this:
“What’s happened to black people in the media?Â In the 60’s we had Martin Luther King, Jr. we had Sammy Davis, Jr.,Â We used to be everywhere!Â You couldn’t swing a nightstick without hitting a black person upside the head.Â In the 70’s…”
Some time around 2005, Kamau became a sort of mentor in my standup work.Â We’d meet every week and work on bits, listen to great comics and talk about different realms of skill and how the greats did what they did.Â What we had in common was that we both approached standup with a desire to speak a more complex truth than is sometimes found in standup, which is hard, because funny is usually simple and short.
With Kamau climbing the ranks ofÂ San Francisco standupÂ along with fellow comedians like Dan Rothenberg, Joe Klocek, and Dan Gabriel (and many others), he moved from opening, to featuring, to the honored position of headlining at The Punch Line about two years ago.Â His first headlining shows were especially packed and full of heat–Kamau, likeÂ Robert MacÂ before him, had gotten a really short hair cut, and almost immediately started headlining.Â Coincidence?Â You be the judge.Â WhenÂ Dave ChapelleÂ came back from his trip in Africa, he was doing a lot of sets at The Punch Line, and Kamau performed with him frequently.Â Kamau also appeared onÂ Comedy Central’s Premium BlendÂ and recorded his first standup album One Night Only around that time.
So, along the way, Kamau andÂ Kevin AveryÂ had been doing the movie reviews on theÂ Live 105 Morning Show, putting out a podcast (“Siskel & Negro“), working on a screenplay (Kevin) and an internet cartoon (Kamau) and Kamau directed by Bruce Pachtman’s show “Don’t Make Me Look Too Psychotic.”Â One thing led to another, and Kamau started teaching The Solo Performance Workshop for people who want to develop a one-person-show or monologue.Â Kamau just won Best Comedian 2008 in the SF Weekly, and I’m hoping he takes his show on the road especially because he’s got a plethora of opinions and insights about Obama that make it a perfect time to showcase this work.
What I have always admired about Kamau’s work is that he articulates the questions of race in a genuine way that’s not clichÃ©d.Â Especially in The Bell Curve, Kamau thinks he expresses more anger about race than he actually does; on stage he is affable, engaging, and charming.Â Kamau’s move from standup into the solo show is a courageous step.Â Not only does he re-write his show each week according to what’s in the news, he also continues to develop both the standup and the theatrical elements of the show.Â I look forward to seeing future iterations as they unfold.
* Directed by Martha Rynberg, The W. Kamau Bell Curve is a co-production of Bruce Pachtman Productions AND Lisa Marie Rollins’ Third Root Production